Autopsies…ask the Rabbi

August 17, 2014 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple writes on protecting the dead…
Q. Does Judaism approve of autopsies?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. Generally Judaism opposes anything which would injure, mar or mutilate the human body, after death as well as in life. However, in 1776 Rabbi Yechezkel Landau issued in his Noda Biy’hudah a now famous statement that an autopsy could be performed if could benefit “choleh shelefanenu” – a sick person who was physically present and suffering from the same disease as the deceased.

In 1964 Rabbi Yitzchak Arieli in a paper to the 6th World Congress on the Oral Law said that hereditary disease is comparable to “choleh shelefanenu”. Lord Jakobovits has stated that “in these days of rapid traffic and transportation, there are patients ‘lefanenu’ (actually present) in every place where one awaits the results of anatomic investigation, and what is found here today may serve as a cure tomorrow in New York”.

However, none of this implies that autopsies may be carried out routinely and indiscriminately: that would be an affront to human dignity and compromise the integrity of the body, which is God’s property. Every case must therefore be investigated and decided on its own merits.

SHABBAT AS A BRIDE

Q. Why does “L’chah Dodi” compare Shabbat to a bride?

A. To symbolise the intense love of the Jewish people for Shabbat.

In many places in the Tanach, our love for God and His for us is described as that of bride and groom. Isaiah says, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isa. 62:5).

Maimonides explains the command in the Sh’ma, “You shall love the Lord your God”, in this way: “What is the nature of the love with which one should love the Lord? It is a great and exceedingly strong love until the soul is completely bound up with the love of God so that one thinks of God continually as if one were love-sick. This is what Solomon means by means of allegory in the expression, ‘I am love-sick’ (Shir HaShirim 5:8)”.

FOR RICHER FOR POORER – A THOUGHT FOR ELLUL

The month of Tishri when we observe the High Holydays is awesome and demanding, but the previous month, Ellul, is even harder. In Tishri we face the Almighty Judge but in Ellul we get ready for the court appearance, and that is when we should really shake with dread.

Of course many people use the days and weeks before facing the music – of any kind – looking for alibis and excuses that might mitigate the sentence. “I wasn’t there, Your Honour, when the crime was committed”… “Everybody knows I am incapable of committing a crime”… “I have a psychological condition and cannot be held fully responsible for my actions”…

We all become paragons of virtue at times like these – anything to avoid being given a heavy sentence.

A modern syndrome? Far from it. The Talmud (Yoma 35b) records what people in those days might say when asked why they did not study Torah and keep away from sin. “I was too poor,” one might claim. Another: “I was too rich”. A third: “I was busy with my health and looks”.

The first one was told, “Were you poorer than Hillel? He had hardly any assets yet nothing would ever get in the way of his learning Torah”. The second one was told, “Were you richer than Elazar ben Harsom? He had a huge business yet nothing impeded his Torah study”. The third one was told, “Were you better looking than Joseph in the Bible? Yet he would not succumb to the temptation to sin!”

We can look for excuses but what is best in the end is to confess, “Aval anachnu chatanu” – “We admit our failings; we have indeed sinned”. That’s what should occupy our minds in Ellul, the month of real trepidation.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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